Sam Wyly 'Innovates To Opportunity' Time And Time Again

by Gene Rigoni, MBA1

Family Man: one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the U.S., Wyly cites taking time out for family as a key to success.
At the end of 1996, while the members of the business school community were leaving for winter break, the school's Corporate Development office was finalizing the details on receiving a $10 million gift from Dallas-based entrepreneur Sam Wyly. The gift is one of the two largest ever made to the Michigan Business School, and the largest-ever for facilities.

Wyly, a 1957 Michigan MBA alum, was born in Lake Providence, La., and came to the University of Michigan after receiving his undergraduate degree from Louisiana Tech. He was personally recruited to attend the Michigan Business School by legendary accounting professor William Paton. Professor Paton selectedWyly to receive the first Paton scholarship, whichWyly credits for allowing him to earn his MBA.

Who is Sam Wyly? I was able to speak toWyly last week about his experiences and what he believes to be important for a successful, rewarding career.

Asked about his MBA experience,Wyly remarked that when he received his MBA in 1957, the classroom learning was focused primarily on issues and concepts for large corporations. He stated that his emphasis was in accounting, but his favorite class was a small business development class because it tied together all of the concepts from his other courses. Moreover, he commented that didn't focus on becoming an entrepreneur during his Michigan MBA experience.

Mr. Wyly began his post-Michigan career with IBM, as a sales representative, with the intention of spending his entire career there. IBM offered a lot of opportunity to an MBA graduate, and the possibility existed for him to climb the ladder of success all the way up to the position of IBM president. However, he left IBM to join Honeywell, primarily a thermostat company at that time, to assist in Honeywell's quest to enter the computer business. He had to start from scratch at Honeywell and equates it to running a start-up company. At Honeywell he began with only a goal to build Honeywell's computer business in the Dallas area. He had to hire the people, develop the sales contacts, and forge the market.

It is computer experience at IBM and Honeywell that led toWyly's founding the University Computing Company (UCC) in 1963. "University Computing was initially a good service, low cost FORTRAN business for engineers and scientists," according to Wyly. UCC went public in 1965 and earned its investors a 100:1 return in the next four years. AlthoughWyly had a high level of confidence when he started UCC, he also was concerned with the high risk of failure, as an entrepreneur must be.

In a recent profile ofWyly, Gene Bylinski, senior editor of Fortune, stated that Sam Wyly is "one of the most, if not the most, successful post-war entrepreneurs." Wyly prefers to be thought of as "one of the most." Because of his success and distinction, I asked him about how he defined entrepreneurship--a word that has fallen into wide use in contemporary business parlance and, as such, is subject to various interpretations. He stated that he has a "conservative concept of creating new businesses where none existed, and believes in innovation to opportunity."

An example of his entrepreneurship, in addition to UCC, is the Data Transmission Company (DATRAN), which was one of the three entrepreneurial efforts that broke up the USA telephone monopoly in the 1970s.

Wyly co-founded Earth Resources Company, an oil refining and silver mining company, with his brother Charles; co-founded USACafes, a restaurant licensing business that grew from 20 to 600 "Bonanza" restaurants in 20 years; and co-founded Sterling Software, which now sells computer software in 50 countries and enjoys revenues of $600 million and operating profits of $100 million.

The Wylys also bought Michaels Stores, a specialty retail chain, in 1984. Michael's revenues grew astoundingly from $10 million to $1.24 billion in the 12 years since.

Because of his exceptional entrepreneurial successes, I askedWyly about the characteristics he looks for in his employees, business partners and peers. He said that number one is integrity. The second quality he looks for is leadership ability. "Leadership ability shows up in a lot of different bundles. It's hard to evaluate, but if it's there you are going to recognize it."

The last question I askedWyly was, "Do you have any words of wisdom that you would like to pass along to the Michigan Business School community that sum up your philosophy?"

He answered with a piece of advice that he originally received in the mid-1960's from Chuck Percy, a former President of Bell and Howell and a former United States Senator from Illinois.

Wyly received the advice during an American Management Seminar for presidents: "Take time out for family. Sometimes ambitious old folks and young folks don't always do that. When a person gets busy, it's easy to get absorbed in the tasks at hand."

Percy had received that same advice when he was named President of Bell and Howell at the age of 28 from an executive who had not followed the advice and didn't really know his own family.

Wyly suggests telling secretaries, assistants, and peers that you will always take calls from family, no matter what. And he tells his family to call anytime. He says that his policy has brought peace and balance to his life, which is something everyone should seek.